Thursday, May 06, 2010

Defining The Problem

I have been glomming that old HBO mini-series FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. Maybe it was because I was born in 1969 or that my name "Cynthia" means "moon goddess" (yes, it does, and no, I can't tell anyone that with a straight face.) Or maybe it's that I like how the Nerds won for a change.

Regardless, I am fascinated with how America went from so-far-behind to putting a man on the moon in a decade.

In one episode, a bunch of engineers and scientists gather in a room, and the Big Cheese stands with his pocket pen protector and his overhead projector. He presents a list of problems that have to be conquered before man could land on the moon. Just little things, like, yanno, getting there. And landing. And then getting back.

That impressed me. He'd been able to define the problem, which to me is essential to getting any goal accomplished.

That's how I'd like to think I tackle problems, breaking them down into bite-sized chunks of the elephant that is to be eaten. The Sister and The Husband disagree and tell me that I just say, "No, that won't work." A lot.

But if I can define what has to happen and figure out why it's currently not happening, then my brain will eventually suss out the solution.

My problem-solving approach is not as pretty and elegantly simple as the Big Cheese Engineer/Scientist, but it's based on the same idea.

How does this apply to writing? It's how I figure out things like why characters aren't behaving, or setting isn't working, or why I have a plot-hole the size of Manhattan. It's how I figured out the business of getting published to begin with.

I didn't actually write it down beforehand, but this was kind of my approach:

Goal: To Publish A Book

1) Write a book.
2) Get some non-family member to read it and see if it stinks.
3) If it stinks, either fix it or write another one that doesn't stink.
4) Find out how to sell a book.
5) Sell book.
6) Repeat.

Somewhere in between step 2 and step 5, I discovered that a) I stunk at writing mysteries and b) if I wanted to sell a mystery, I'd have to sell it to an agent who'd have to sell it to a publisher.

Agents terrified me. (I know, what a silly goose I was, to get all terrified of such soft, cuddly critters, but back then I was inhaling every blog post that Miss Snark could put out, and I had the idea that agents wore stiletto heels and drank a bathtub full of gin every day.)

That could have stopped me in my tracks, but no. I researched until I found a work-around solution: Harlequin, which, for the most part, doesn't require agents.

The decision relieved so much of the fear and stress I had about querying agents that I found I could not only finish the book, and then a second one (because, man, the first one stank so bad it needed a full body scrubdown) ... but I could also get the nerve to query agents.

It also led me to a great publisher, which in turn led me to great author friends. I'd say I hit the jackpot. All because I defined the problem. Oh, and had a little bit of luck along the way, too.


Lola Sharp said...

So you don't have an agent????

BTW, I loved your last post about your sister gong all Martha and turning the room into a tropical wedding paradise. I definitely relate to her need to get every last detail perfect. (drives my husband batty) And I love how you related it to writing/reading.

Piedmont Writer said...

I wrote a book. I got rejected. I revised the book. I'm still waiting.

I don't know if I've defined the problem, plot holes, backstory, genre (Regency), but I'm hoping I'm smart enough to have figured it out.

Linda G. said...

Dear Moon Goddess,

I like your new name. May I call you "MG" for short?

I used to think Linda meant "beautiful" in Spanish (and maybe it does), but I recently (about two seconds ago, via Google) found out it also means beautiful SNAKE. Or possibly Scandinavian bipedal serpent. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this new persona, but I'm going to try to go with "cool!"

"Beautiful Snake"

P.S. No, you may not call me "BS" for short, no matter how appropriate you think it may be. ;)

Cynthia Reese said...

Lola, currently, no agent, no. Harlequin is fairly easy to work with, and my former agent basically let me work directly with my editors. If I ever make the jump to women's fiction or some other genre, then yes, I'd need an agent.

Anne, we never TRULY know, do we? Until, at least, we get the results we desire. But I like your can-do attitude. It will serve you well!

Dear Beautiful Snake, whenever I hear the initials MG, I think, cute little car that I longed to have. I won't call you BS if you won't call me MG. :-)

Karla Nellenbach said...

I was always under the impression it was bourbon they drank. Guess I was wrong :) I like your list. I'm a compulsive listmaker myself and I usually do the same thing with problems...break it down so it's not so scary or unattainable

Tawna Fenske said...

I'm totally calling you "Moon Goddess" from now on.

And Linda, it does mean beautiful in Spanish. Construction workers in Mexico love to yell that at passing women, even ones who aren't really named that :)

Excellent blog post, Moon Goddess. Hey, can you get The Husband and The Kiddo to start calling you that around the house?


Jamie D. said...

Funny, that's pretty much my plan. Although I've always wanted to write for Harlequin. It was more just a bonus to find out I really didn't need an agent to submit there. It does kind of take the pressure off knowing that I'm going to submit (eventually) straight to the editor. There are small presses I wouldn't mind writing for too, that don't require an agent.

I can't decide if it's fear or laziness that makes me sort of relieved not to have to query agents at this point...either way, it does seem like one hurdle has been removed. Unless I someday decide to branch out...but that's a long, long ways off. ;-)

"Mood Goddess" - I like it! Very exotic...

kellybreakey said...

Cynthia...I had written myself into a corner last night and my hero was really starting to get on my seriously. But this morning after I read your blog something clicked for me. I now know what I have to do and it's not kill him off although that was my first thought last night. Thanks for the inspiration about breaking it down.

Margo Berendsen said...

Grinning at that comment about agents with stiletto heels and drinking bathtubs full of gin! I fear agents for different reasons. Recently stumbled on the Rejectionist's blog, which gave me nightmares.

Toby Speed said...

Moon Goddess, I hear you on agents. Part of the reason I like writing children's books is that you don't necessarily need an agent. You can deal direct. But I'll need one when I finish this mystery, that's for sure. Whole new ballgame.

If I can add something to your approach, define the problem, fix it or get around it...and persevere!

Cynthia Reese said...

Karla, a fellow list-maker! Yahoo!

Tawna, The Husband and The Kiddo laugh uproariously when they hear Goddess in connection with my name. It sort of hurts my feelings.

Jamie, you will love writing for Harlequin -- they have fab editors who really work hard to bring the best out of the book. I just wish they weren't so dadburned overworked. And no, you're not lazy -- just prioritizing. Plus, once the fear is gone, I'll bet you will have the courage to hit send to the great agents out there.

Kelley, LOL, no killing off heroes! Glad I could help!

Margo, I find that blog hugely entertaining ... but, er, I'm not querying right now. ;-)

Toby, you got that right! Perseverance got that ol' snail to the ark!

Susan Fields said...

Moon Goddess - I like it.

Break down the problem - excellent advice. Hopefully my problem is that I haven't started querying my latest masterpiece yet, and once that happens, everything else will fall into place. :)

Cynthia Reese said...

Thanks, Susan. But if the problem is querying, polish that q&s and pop that puppy in the mail or ether ... you can't win if you don't enter!

India Drummond said...

I've recently decided (for various reasons) to submit directly to publishers, and I'm waiting to hear from my dream houses ... which is the dreadful part.

I figure I won't need to worry about an agent until I have a book or five under my belt.

BillRicksofSoperton said...

Cynthia, I think I've figured it out. Your column is the writer's Dear Abby, only with internet speed! What would Abigail have done with a website and blog?

If you haven't already roughed it out, don't forget to use your "Who Owns the Problem?"